‘Mud’ by Joe Bongiorno

Mud

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Kilometers from Kandahar’s sewage scent and mortar symphony, Private Joseph Lespérance of the Canadian Infantry was letting himself sink in the crater of mud, slowly, without resistance, as the rain continued to pour. His ears buzzed—sound was returning to him. He could hear Allah’s name echoing from the distant village mosque where followers cleansed their feet of toe jam and sin, and the heavy breathing of someone an arm’s length away from his body. His intuition told him that only he and Blume had survived.  Lespérance opened his eyes, unsure of whether he wanted to prove himself right or wrong; through his blurred vision, he made out Blume’s pale face.

The pressure cooker bombs had exploded one by one in coordinated waves of shrapnel and fire, tearing the earth open like a mouth. Privates Farrow and Skalski lay in bits strewn across the crater. Moments before the explosions, the patrol unit of four had reached checkpoint Aashiq to secure the deserted farmlands south of the mountain village. Insurgents had operated out of the deserted farmhouses before being snuffed, but there was always the risk of it being recaptured. The patrol took their positions. Lespérance was on lookout duty, his boots inches deep in sticky mud. Rain dribbled down his binocular lenses while he scanned the hills, trying to distinguish plotters from passersby. But his mind was drifting. The sky was pouring for the ninth consecutive day, transforming the dust and dirt roads of the Helmand province into rivers of sludge. It was consuming the land and everything in it. 

“Joseph?” Blume mumbled, letting go of his Colt C7 rifle. He attempted to remove his boots from his feet, but his legs were stuck in the mud as deep as roots.

Lespérance tasted the coppery sweetness of blood. Lying on his side, he touched the pear-shaped wound in his abdomen and closed his eyes. 

“Joseph, are you there? I can’t see.” 

Lespérance opened his lips to speak, but he had nothing to say. He had played out his confrontation with Blume in his mind until he had grown sick of it. He tried to tune Blume out, listening to the drip-drop of rain and crackling of dying flames. Smoke was all around them like curtains, making the world opaque while the mud drew them closer together in descent.

“You there, Joseph?” Blume said louder, wiping the mud from his eyes. “

“Guess you can say that,” replied Lespérance.

“You hurt? I can’t see a fucking thing. Not a thing.”

“What’s it to you?” Lespérance mumbled. The mud had reached his elbows, pulling his waist in. 

“What kind of question is that?” Blume cried. “I think we’re sinking!” Blume was feeling out the crater for something solid to hold onto. “For fuck’s sake, pull me out. I can’t move my legs!”

Lespérance spit to the side and opened his eyes to watch the smoke climb skyward. “It’s about time I get a change of scenery,” he said, closing his eyes again. “You know, away from here. Away from you.”

Outside the crater, men shouted in Pashto. The tones of their voices rose, celebrating or lamenting either victory or tragedy.

 “I can’t see” moaned Blume. He rubbed his eyes. The same eyes that had caught Lespérance’s wink in the barracks two years ago and accepted an invitation after a moment’s hesitation. He spread out his arms, trying to propel himself forward in a blind swim, but it took hold of his right hand. He swore, swaying back and forth before plunging in the free fist in frustration, burying himself deeper with each movement. “You told yourself things,” Blume continued. “Convinced yourself of things that you didn’t really believe. You did that!”

Lespérance leaned his head back and exhaling. His limbs were no longer visible—they had been absorbed into the ground. 

“I’ve got it all worked out.” Blume said. “I’m gonna sell the condo for a bigger place.  Maybe I’ll move to the country.” 

“You hate the country,” Lespérance replied. 

“…up in the mountains, view of water and woods.” 

“You’re afraid of heights.” 

“…away from city smog. Fresh mountain air. Wildflowers.” 

“You have allergies….” 

“…gonna built a house from scratch. And start a family. 

“You hate kids.”

“I’ve got—” Blume searched for the right words to defend himself. 

“No one.” Lespérance finished the sentence. 

Silence ensued as the mud drew their sinking, breaking bodies closer, faces only inches apart. Lespérance remembered a day nine months ago, when he had woken up at three o’clock in the morning. He had climbed down from his bunk and gone to meet Blume by the latrine like they’d arranged, but Blume never turned up.  By four o’clock, Lespérance had dragged himself back to the tent and had climbed back into his bunk, feeling dumb and rejected. That’s when I should’ve figured it out, thought Lespérance, as he sunk deeper into the tar-thick mud. 

“Is it a boy or girl?” Lespérance asked. Blume had broken that news after nine months of distance. Blume’s wife was pregnant, and she due to deliver next month. His tour was coming to an end. He sent his request for an honorary discharge and packed his belongings in advance. “Were you ever going to—”

“I’m leaving this shithole!” Blume interrupted. 

No words were spoken between them in the company of others, though the only audience they had now were the charred remains of Skalski and Farrow deep in the mouth of the crater. They had always stuck to a script of public silence during their tours, returning home to disparate lives for weeks at a time, one in Ontario, and the other, in Quebec. Either by fate or coincidence, they always ended up in the same regiments, performing their duties without raising any eyebrows and seizing moments alone to plan future encounters in barracks washroom stalls. 

“Were you ever going to tell me that you got married?” asked Lespérance.

“You knew I was engaged,” said Blume, lowering his voice as though concerned the dead would hear. “Why does it matter?”

“You weren’t supposed to go through with it!”

“You don’t decide that for me!” yelled Blume. “You’re not in the picture! It was convenient. That’s all,” he added breathing hard, looking half-relieved. 

Their faces drew even closer, lips only inches apart in the mud. Lespérance had seen enough of Afghanistan. Enough of Blume. The opaque world was quickly boring him.

Seconds before the pressure cooker bombs went off, Lespérance had been watching for enemy movement in the trees. He’d lost himself in the barbed wired opium fields, in the swaying weeds, in the willow trees, in the fabric of distant mud hut doors of recycled oil drums and tin. Birds had been squawking ominously, but he’d said nothing. Silhouettes of suspicious bodies had lingered in the tall weeds, but again, he’d said nothing. Lespérance had zoomed in with his binoculars, seeing the Afghan escort arrive out of position: three men without uniform by a machine gun mounted Chevy. He’d zoomed in as the driver held up his cellular phone, waiting to press the detonation key. It had even seemed like the driver was staring back at him. Lespérance had read all the signs and had still said nothing.

Outside the crater, men had been shouting over an orchestra of gunfire. Getting closer and closer. A matter of moments, minutes, seconds. 

“Do you have a picture of her in your breast pocket?” Lespérance’s face was slipping under. He spat, lifting his lips above the surface to finish his sentence, “Or do you have a picture of me?” His lips sank in. 

Blume replied inaudibly. He coughed, choked, and finally gave in, as the mud forced itself into his mouth, nostrils and ears. 

Lespérance wanted to have the last word, but he couldn’t. He was nose-deep in. He closed his eyes, and then the mud sealed them shut.

 


JOE BONGIORNOis a writer of fiction and non-fiction and works as a high school teacher in his native Montreal. His writing has appeared in Geist, Broken Pencil,Carte Blanche, Existere, and The Headlight Anthology. He is currently working on a novel.

Copyright © 2018 by Joe Bongiorno. All rights reserved.

‘Morning Strikes’ by Nève Donaghy

Birds sing as
Clouds invade the sky
The sun tries to
Enlighten me
But he only reaches
The outside
The walls I’ve
Built around myself
Are covered in leaves
They protect me
From the storm
And the rain
But they also
Keep me from
The sunshine and
All of the flowers above

 


NÈVE DONAGHY is a queer writer, artist and mental health advocate. Currently 18 years old, she is studying in Montreal & hoping to one day be living from her poetry. From an early age, words were already a big part of her world, as she asked her mother to teach her how to read at only 5 years old. Some years later, she started writing stories, some of which she published on a blog in high school. Around the time she moved to Montreal, she truly found her way through poetry and has been working on perfecting this art ever since.

Copyright © 2018 by Nève Donaghy. All rights reserved.

‘A Great Disturbance in Nature’ by Jason Bentsman

A Great Disturbance in Nature

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

(from The Orgastic Future)

The following is a self-contained excerpt from The Orgastic Future, a novella the author comepleted recently about consumerism, plastic pollution, climate change, runaway ego, and other threats facing the planet— in a sense the literary equivalent of a Bruegal or Bosch painting.

The excerpt deals with the ramifications of Climate Change, and asks what it will take for people to finally ‘wake up’ to our precipitous path?

 

A Great Disturbance In Nature

As I write this passage in late September, there has been an unprecedented heatwave in Montreal for the last ten days. Right now it is almost 90° Fahrenheit (32° Celsius), with 90% humidity. Feels like a suffocating hothouse in the tropics. Simply walking outside generates thin sheets of sweat and shortness of breath—I’m like a fish gasping for water. I’ve always wanted to know what walking through warm soup feels like, and now with the wonders of climate change, I do! Another goal accomplished. #lifegoals (This hashtag is a shout-out for the kidz. Not my kids; don’t have any. Just the kids at large. Very unliterary of me, I daresay.)

And this is Montreal, mind you—Quebec, northward part of the world—where for 375 years since its founding, and thousands upon thousands if not millions before, temperatures this time of year have been consistently chilly or wintry, sometimes snowing. A number of records have been broken: today is by far the hottest of this date on record (since 1742), and several other days have been as well.

The natural world is confused. The leaves change color and dry out, branches grow denuded, everything settles in for quiescence and sleep—and suddenly a rip-roaring heatwave and burning sun. The leaves perk up again, vacillate this way and that. Some of the plants and flowers begin to release pollen; suddenly pollen is in the air again. The bees—still mysteriously dying out, most likely from widespread pesticides, their leagues growing thinner and thinner—buzz about akimbo, this way and that, confused. Squirrels save up nuts for the winter, and then say, ‘Ah, what?! Fuck it.’ Flocks of migrating geese, long black V-shaped silhouettes far on the horizon, start flying backwards in rewind. Water freezes, liquefies, boils, vaporizes, condenses, freezes again. Fires burn over waters. Ashes dust across prairies. The whole body and innards of the planet are having trouble communicating.

Clearly, there is a great disturbance in Nature. Animals feel it, plants feel it, insects feel it…bacteria and viruses…the entire planet…even particles feel it. Anyone with even a remote connection to nature can feel it. It takes a great deal of disconnection from the natural world, and one’s own subconscious, and/or willful blindness and repression, not to feel it. Unfortunately, contemporary society facilitates all of the above. At this rate, John Keats would only be able to pen odes to Summer. Vivaldi would only write music about the One Season. The documentary Endless Summer will no longer be a fond metaphor.

These drastic climatic changes have come about in the last fifteen or so years, especially the last several. Before that, they were scarcely noticeable. In only my thirty some years on this planet, about a nanosecond (a billionth of a second!) of its age, I’ve watched the weather go from multiseasonal, regular, reliable, sane, and self-regulating—no one questioned this self-contained logic, it was taken for granted, seemingly self-evident—to quasi-seasonal, irregular, unpredictable, schizophrenic, spastic. How much it has changed in the last decade! The perennial, cyclical, intuitive, reassuringly fond processes have been upended and spliced about like a deck of cards adulterated randomly with extra cards and Jokers.

And then, incidentally, think of the monumental technological and informational changes. Inventions thought distant science fiction are already embedded fact. DNA manipulation. Cloning. Brain-computer interfacing. Bionics. Realistic holograms. Immersive Virtual Reality. X-Ray Vision. Self-piloting vehicles. Invisibility cloaking. Nanobots. Workable androids. Flying cars. Intergalactic travel. Jules Verne would bescumber himself! And all of this in but a nanosecond of the planet’s existence!

My generation likely has witnessed more exponential and radical change by far than any other in history. An eminently interesting time to live in: and eminently terrifying.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was a strange time.

Half the planet lived in primitive poverty and disease. The other half in profligacy and technological disarray.

In fact, the prevailing social-economic system relied on producing innumerable products of every size and variety made to be disposed of as quickly as possible.

When for ages people had gone to cafes and coffee shops for conversation, they now did so to stare at computer screens.

When once books had been written mainly by persons of learning and read by the public, now they were written by the public and read by nobody.

 


When All Is Said and Done

What will it take for enough people, a critical mass, to wake up and a large-scale movement to happen? Wide-ranging cataclysms, near-Apocalypse? Or will nothing reverse the tide? Are we too irrevocably brainwashed by the consumerist system? Are the evolutionarily older parts of our brains, and even our prefrontal cortexes, just too bygone and maladapted to the exponentially changing conditions of the 21st century for us to be widely judicious, compassionate, responsible, and wise? And humanity’s fate is to be flotsam, shorn against the ruins?

One might say cavalierly: “but this is the fate of all things anyway.” Yet, what a shame for a run so promising—of some 350,000 years, or if one considers the ‘archaic’ and ‘proto’ ancestors ‘modern humans’ developed and branched off from, millions—that in spite of teeming horror, self-inflicted suffering, and wastefulness—particularly in the last ten millennia or so—also yielded so many beauteous artefacts, amazing artworks, magnificent architectures, inspiring attitudes, and acts of worth, to be snuffed out so obtusely and crassly. And maybe at the cusp of an evolutionary transition into something Finer. Maybe.

An absurd end. A black mirror. A whimper, not a bang. Although, yes: a bang for the buck. ‘Well, the world’s in ruins, and humanity’s decimated. But for one glorious moment in time, we sure turned a lot of profits for our shareholders!’

And indeed, when all is said and done, when all is buried and disintegrated, when the buildings, bridges, and tunnels have crumbled; when the businesspersons’ enterprises and empires have long since gone out of business, or been coopted and remade; when the new inventions long outmoded and assimilated; when the politicians long past flapping their lips and now fertilizer in empty graves; when theorems incorporated and far surpassed—what are humanity’s most vital and enduring contributions, which it can be proudest of and might like to show other cognizant species in the Universe?

These must be its deepest and most arresting artworks. Its profoundest philosophies. What could be called its genuine ‘spiritual practices.’ And in fact its secret noblest feelings, thoughts, and deeds. For all seems to aspire towards luminosity and rarefication. “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being” (Carl Jung).

 


JASON BENTSMAN is a writer, philosopher, poet, and occasional humorist. He was born in Minsk, Belarus (formerly the USSR), grew up in the US, and has spent quite some time sojourning abroad, with Montreal as a periodic home-base. He recently completed The Orgastic Future, a novella about consumerism, plastic pollution, climate change, runaway ego, and other threats facing the planet. You can read (and listen to!) another excerpt here: (http://forwhatitsworth.be/prose/excerpt-every-bondperson/).

He is currently working on a long philosophical novel and two short novels, among other writings. He also takes fine art photographs. Some of his writing has appeared in Unvael Journal, The Real Us, Metamorphoses (Smith College), HirschworthFlaneur (NYC), FIRE (Oxford), and other publications; some of his photographic work in LensCulture, Feature Shoot,and the Ellohomepage. You can check out his Literary Website FWIW (www.ForWhatItsWorth.be), sign-up for his occasional Literary Email Digest (http://eepurl.com/cd81ZP), or purchase a fine art photography print (https://bit.ly/2MBazqd).

Copyright © 2018 by Jason Bentsman. All rights reserved.

‘Bedside Knife’ by Nils Blondon

Bedside Knife

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

After ten months of writing it was done. My first novella. I read through it twice, and thought it was pretty good. Strong enough to be published, but I could never be sure. What mattered most was my friend’s opinion. He was an author. There was an unspoken recognition between us. A gentle camaraderie fostered by a shared struggle: the artist’s impassioned toil.

He said that when I finished the first draft he would read it, and give me his thoughts. I told him that I wanted the truth: “Don’t spare my feelings,” I said. He promised that he wouldn’t. His opinion was the only one that mattered to me. I gave the draft a final read and emailed him a copy.

Ten days passed. I took a break from writing, and I even made the time to have dinner with a girl I had started seeing. I told her I had finished the first draft of my novella. She asked if she could read it.

“No,” I said. I was only letting one person read it, my novelist friend.

“Why not get a second opinion?” she asked. “What makes his thoughts the only ones that matter?”

“He understands,” I replied. “He knows what it takes to really make it, to get published.”

She shrugged. We ate our pasta in silence, dispirited and unsure of each other.

I got home that night and checked my email. No response from my friend yet. I opened up the draft on my computer, read the first few lines, and had to stop.  Reading my own words was like hearing the sound of my own voice. But what really mattered, all that really mattered, was what my friend would think of it. From his thoughts I would get an idea of how close I was to breaking through as a writer.

A few days later, I woke up at 6 am to give him a call. He didn’t answer. Everything in my room looked overexposed, a few measures too bright. I called in sick to work, and checked my email every fifteen minutes, hoping his notes on my draft would appear in my inbox. Any second now. Nothing came. But it will. He will get back to me. Soon.

I kept a knife on my bedside table. It was a gift from someone I hadn’t seen in years. I picked it up, and felt its weight in my hands. It had a real presence. I wiped the dust from the blade, and put it back down

What if the writing is terrible? Maybe that’s why he’s not getting back to me. He’s embarrassed. He’s hiding from me because of the manuscript. My pathetic manuscript.

That idea stalked me through the night. It was still in my head when I woke up the next morning. And then the phone rang. It was him.

“Hey man.” He sounded nonchalant. “How’s it going?”

“Great,” I said. “Just taking it easy, feels weird not having the novella to work on. It became a part of my routine, a real part of me.”  

“Oh yeah?” He told me to hold on for a second. I heard him chat and laugh with a female voice in the background. “Why don’t we meet today at the Coffee Hour? How’s four o’clock?”

“That works.” I hung up the phone. I tidied the trash and clothes from around my apartment, ran the shower until my bathroom was thick with steam and bathed for the first time since finishing my novella. The water washed over my soapy skin as I brushed my teeth –– all the tedium and irritations of daily hygiene.

 

The streetcar was crowded as I made my way to the Coffee Hour. I arrived at 3:30 pm to prepare for the bad news. I was ready to be told that my work was awful, that it needed to be rewritten. It was OK. That’s what the process was all about: building and destroying, killing and resurrecting.

He showed up twenty minutes late –– he had nothing to prove. He was an accomplished writer, after all. We sat down together and ordered black coffees. He started talking about a girl he met online, about her body and her face and the way she spoke. “She speaks like a baby, dude. She has a baby voice.”

I listened. I waited for a chance to ask him what he thought of my novella, but he kept talking about the girl. I felt something twist in my guts, a raw resentment. I watched his mouth move, anticipating the moment when he’d say: “I read your manuscript.” But it never came.

He finished his coffee and left. I stayed in the cafe alone. My phone buzzed in my pocket, and it was a text from him: “Sorry man,” it said. “I forgot. I wanted to tell you that I really hope things work out with you and that girl. I really do. Love you, bro.”

I sat thinking about all the things I could have asked him. I was angry at myself for not having the guts to bring up the novella. Couples in the café ate full bowls of fresh fruit and yogurt.  I watched feeling at odds with anything kind, anything neutral and easy.

I got home, and checked my email again. I was sure that he had sent me another apologetic message, this time about his failure to bring my novella up over coffee. This must be a trick of his –– an April fool’s joke delivered in the wrong month. But my inbox remained empty.

Another two days passed. He still hadn’t got back to me. I really needed some form of validation now, a bit of dopamine, a bit of serotonin for my brain. I called the girl.

“I’ll send you my novella if you still want to read it,” I told her. She told me to send it to her. She got back to me that evening.

“I read your novella. It was good!”

“Good?” I asked. “What do you mean by good?”

“I mean, it was pretty good. I mean, I think I liked it.”

Someone laughed outside my window. I heard a streetcar grind along the tracks.

“You ‘liked it’? That doesn’t tell me anything,” I replied. “That’s like something my mom would say. Be honest! Tell me what you actually think.”

“What?”

The laughter outside got louder. Shut up, I wanted to yell.

“Are you ok?” She asked. “Something has been really off with you lately. You’re acting kind of weird.”

“Weird? I’m not fucking weird. I’m pissed off. Tired of the bullshit. Just tell me what you think. I don’t have time to hear a coward’s critique.”

“God, what’s wrong with you? It’s good, OK? It’s not bad. I kind of liked it”

“Oh, so you kind of like it now? We’re getting closer to what you really think of my work. I know what you think, but you’re a coward just like him. You’re too scared to come out and say that you hate it. You think I’m pathetic, you think my writing is pathetic!”

She hung up, and then texted me: “Never call me again.”

The laughter outside was intolerable. I ran to the ledge, and looked down and out onto the street, but I couldn’t find its source.

I closed the windows, drew the blinds, ran the kitchen sink cold, and stuck my head under the tap to cool off a bit. Then I printed out a copy of my manuscript and read it in fragments, but never start to finish, scanning a paragraph here, a sentence there, the last page and then another page in the middle. My stomach hurt, so I skipped dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. I read my manuscript again, only this time I pulled my friend’s novel from the shelf and juxtaposed our pages in contrast, comparing our work line by line, word by word, and I felt sick again. “Fuck this, I shouted. “Fuck all of this!”

I grabbed the bedside knife, and stabbed the wall ten or twelve times, compelled by something ancient, a timeless blue anger. It felt good to stab the wall. It felt right.

I placed the knife in my pocket, blade out. I left my building, and walked towards my friend’s house. Only to talk to him, of course. Only to ask him, face -to- face, what he thought of my novella.

 


NILS BLONDON is a writer from Toronto, Ontario. His work explores his experiences with the human condition at its most raw, addiction, alcoholism, and loss.

Copyright © 2018 by Nils Blondon. All rights reserved.

 

‘Separation Anxiety’ by Carter Vance

Rum, ice, tea in glass,
they take together in
peculiar form, burnishing
off the white floor tiles
and helping with tremors.

Or, helping could be too strong,
there isn’t much beyond greenery
to stare at, making sense
of whether this fire or that was
set deliberate, merely down to
careless matches left amid
dry brush.

There isn’t much calling these days,
spirits won’t do for you when
tasks are as simple as eleven
numbers, dot-dashing through
bending horizons playing gold
against tin roof cats.

There is, though, an echoed clasp of
skin to memory, deliberating ‘round
an oaken cabinet table through
rapid descent to first principled
buttoning, shutting off, shutting down
those possible pasts I kept
mulling through damp screen light.

 


CARTER VANCE is a writer and poet originally from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada currently resident in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in such publications as The Vehicle, Contemporary Verse 2 and A Midwestern Review, amongst others. He is a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Ideas Fellow. His debut collection of poems, Songs About Girls, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017.

Copyright © 2018 by Carter Vance. All rights reserved.

 

‘Evaluating Yesterday’ by Judy Fischer

On the scale of life, how do you measure Yesterday?
In volume, quantity, depth, breadth or size,
Length, width, amount, weight or miles?
Pocket full of dreams, degrees of pain, gallons of tears,
Missed opportunities, multitude of fears?
A handful of regrets, loads of grief,
Tons of problems, bags of relief,
Small portions of happiness and glee,
Proportional sadness and misery?
A stretch of discontent, an era of joy,
A decade of luck, a minute to enjoy
A thousand miles tread with reservation,
Two steps taken in the right direction,
Pounds and pounds of selfish interactions,
No mention of personal growth or satisfactions?

Do you measure Yesterday as they do in history books?
List the wars, the population’s death and growth,
Admire the heroes and curse their oath,
Praise progress, politics and wealth,
Disregard the effects of evolution in terms of health,
Measure by feats not by courage,
Value life in terms of power and outrage?

Do you monitor how you faired on a scale of one to ten?
Are you as important as other revered and honorable men?
Is your pride evaluated as your sensitive ego?
Which chose the road you followed?
Is self-importance your excess?
Is your goal to be number ten, a success?
Are you measuring yesterday with care?
Allocating the proper worth for having been there?

Is money your devil in disguise?
Assessing the power behind your egotistical lies,
Did you replace your decency with greed and voracity
Or have you seen the integrity in less
Giving up covetousness and excess?

I measure my Yesterday with only love in mind
Whom I cared for, or unwillingly left behind.
My arms embraced, touched with sensitivity and concern
Every human being I had chosen to know, in return
Some I loved for no reason what so ever
Some I gave my soul to, however.
The happiness and sorrow I received combined
Was worth the time and effort the love defined.
If my heart was filled with passion, selfless and altruistic
Did it leave my soul heavy and optimistic?
For Yesterday to be measured with accuracy and significance
It must be balanced with love, both platonic and intense.
Compassion, empathy, kindness and tender love
Are the only guidelines I can honestly think of.
I believe I am prepared, now, to meet my god and jury
Having measured Yesterday,
In terms of love, true passion and such fury.

 


JUDY FISCHER is a Montrealer by love and choice. She is the author of He Fell from the sky and Missy Loves René, two books published in the last two years.

Copyright © 2018 by Judy Fischer. All rights reserved.

‘Distantly Connected’ by Jessica Fernandes

Distantly Connected

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

When I was in seventh grade, I was introduced to The Beatles on a rainy day. Our school’s recess hour was cancelled due to bad weather, but none of us were really bothered by this. We stayed inside and passed around our MP3 players, listening to each other’s playlists. One person picked out the tune while two of us shared an earphone each.

There wasn’t a need to seek things elsewhere. We simply relied on each other’s recommendations. As this memory distances itself from the ones I am currently making today, I realize that collective oriented events are slowly diminishing due to the expenditure of digital services. Instead, we unconsciously choose to partake in isolated experiences that supposedly bring us together online.

I don’t think things have changed because I’m aging, but because the nature of our society has changed. The world has become fast-paced and time is not easily gained; so, we fall for any trick that saves time. Whether one wants to find a new friend or even love, there are now shortcuts to making these connections: shortcuts to eliminate the awkwardness and uncertainty of first encounters. I realized that friendships would no longer be made through a developed passion for something and that new technologies would hinder the authenticity of how relationships are naturally created.

Being born in the 90s, I recently began to comprehend the obsession revolved around being a 90s kid. Perhaps, it’s because we had the privileged experience of being the last generation to have an organic childhood. As I reflect on my own memories, I realize I miss the sense of proximity that was once guaranteed when we met friends at a given a place and time. Today, we remind people of our presence by pressing hollow hearts that turn red or by giving a virtual thumbs-up. All this to say, the sense of connection felt a lot closer. All we do now is preserveour status in people’s lives in an effortless manner. Thus, I wonder if true friendships can be maintained online and if digitalizing the world is leading us in a good direction. This being said, I worry about our future. I worry that this upcoming generation will be raised by Alexa and turn towards generated responses for guidance; that communicating with our close ones would be too difficult to plan.

I may sound like a whiny millennial, criticizing my generation’s habits, but I often find myself talking about this concern and am told that it’s just the way things are now: that all my memories occurred because time allowed them to unfold this way.

Whenever I take the subway or walk in the mall, I end up coming across those popular “90s kid” or “made in the 90s” fluorescent t-shirts. I develop some sort of connection to the people wearing them due to our common situation. However, I can’t help but chuckle because I don’t think any other generation has worn pieces of clothing that displaysa sense of pride in their decade of birth. I guess it’s just the sense of privilege in experiencing the world through two lenses. One, having the opportunity to experience the world for ourselves and not digitally. And two, letting time decide our encounters.

Sometimes I wonder how fast connections will be made twenty years from now, and at what pace? Will it be the same, or will things speed up even more? I can’t think of anything grander than what we currently have, and I don’t think there should be a need for something “new and improved.” We could continue outdoing ourselves, but eventually we all desire what we started out with. I know connections are made in different ways and mean something different to each person, but I don’t want our connections to be sustained by wires. Instead, I want to return to the roots of how connections were madeduring my childhood and through my teenage years: through face to face interactions.

I guess we remain a game of connect the dots, or maybe stars mapped out in the night sky—out of reach but linked by our interests and similarities.

 


JESSICA FERNANDES was born in raised and Montreal. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and is currently doing her Masters at McGill University. She has an interest in writing personal essays that focus on teenagehood and current social issues. If she isn’t typing, she is probably reading about mid-century modern designs. You can spot her wearing turtlenecks and drinking coffee on most days.

Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Fernandes. All rights reserved.

‘Hong Kong Series’ by Finn Harvor

1

2

3

4

5

 


FINN HARVOR is an artist, writer, musician, and filmmaker living in South Korea. His written work has appeared in many journals, both academic and popular. He’s won grants and awards, and been broadcast on national radio (Canada). He’s written and staged two plays, and my visual work has been shown/screened in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Ireland, Kazakhstan, South Korea, and Cuba (upcoming in Hong Kong). He has done work in videopoetry, and had work featured as a finalist at the Athens Videopoetry Festival (2017, 2018), the O’Bheal Videopoetry Festival (two videos: 2018), the MIX Conference (2017), Rabbitheart Curator’s Choice (2016, 2017, 2018), the Association of Comparative Literature, Korea (keynote plus screening).

Copyright © 2018 by Finn Harvor. All rights reserved.

‘Walking Long’ by Mark Mayes

Walking Long

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

see how they look at each other when they think I am not watching. My son and his new wife are growing harder with wanting. They study shiny catalogues for this or that. Wasteful things. A thousand varieties of nonsense. She expects a child and my small room would be suitable for the newborn. We had an arrangement. They would care for me in old age, and when the time came the house would be theirs. It is not much. Not enough for them, I am sure. They long for one of those monster cities on the coast, an apartment with a dishwasher and other gadgets. I saw a story about it. Tiny rooms high above the street, all shiny surfaces, so clean and smooth it makes you sad and lazy.

This village by Shenmi forest is no longer for them. The chickens running about, pigs snorting among the scraps, the few barefoot children, growing fewer each year. Traditions growing weaker with every season. Soon we will all be ghosts that no one can be bothered to honour.

With only three teeth I cannot eat the food my husband’s wife, Lan, offers me. It gives me no pleasure, and I can easily choke. I ask her to mash it up for me. Small pieces. But she slams the bowl down, defiant, hands on her hips. I cannot eat meat in the same way. Rice and soft noodles I can manage. And soup, of course. She is not a good cook. Not like my wife was. This one adds spices with no care for how they clash. It all goes in.

I can still defend myself a little. I have my father’s cane. But I foresee a time when she or both of them might strike me, without fear or shame, for their own amusement. Such things occur. They did when I was young, but there was a community back then to censure it, root it out. Closed doors could be opened. I have heard them whispering when they imagine me asleep. They long for my death. But death comes in its own time. We were always taught that. We were taught to honour and respect our elders. Much of that is gone now. 

I heard her talking about leaving me on the high road, where the trucks thunder by, trucks crammed with cheap plastic rubbish, and that if I am not run down, the authorities would take me in somewhere, to some facility, a warehouse for the unwanted. No. I would tell them where my home is. I still know where I live. Once you forget that, they can put you anywhere. I would make the authorities bring me back, and then my son and his wife would be shamed. There is still some law. Is there not?

The old ones are dying out. There’s still Liu, half-crazy with homebrew, and the widow Hua, and the Zhang couple—they never officially married, but she took his name. The village itself is dying. No one cares for their properties any more, and the paths are overgrown. A few of the unemployed young men might even be using drugs. I saw Ho looking ill. I asked him what the matter was, and he looked at me so fiercely. I still wanted to comfort him; he used to be a kind boy. In some ways I cannot blame them, the boys that this country prevents from becoming men. They too have found themselves unwanted and dishonoured. There are no local jobs to support this community. The young must go to the cities. Many do that and some never return or even write. They are swallowed up as by a great snake. My son was lucky to become a tax official for this and several other villages in the area. He had an aptitude. They even gave him a motorcycle. This does not make him popular with some, so his luck is tainted.

I must not wait until I lie in my own mess with no one to clean me or comfort me, until they let me suffer whole days without water or food. I do not wish to die insane or in a rage. The indignities possible are not to be taken lightly. My son is not my son. He is strange to me, rude. I always longed for a daughter, despite what most people think. My son, Chi, has shallow eyes. They flicker about, they will not hold my gaze. It was the same when he was a boy, he always seemed to be secretly plotting.

I worked my smallholding until age prevented me. The big operations swallowed me up. I can still cultivate a few vegetables. The cabbages were especially good this year, but she overcooks them. The soil, you see. It has been taken care of, at least our garden patch. It has not been leached. You cannot take and take and never give anything back. This is a deeper law. The land was sold for a pittance, the few animals slaughtered. My sister, Jiahui, lives over that mountain, beyond Shenmi forest. I have not heard from her in twelve years. Perhaps she has moved away or even passed on. Surely they would have let me know.

We used to play by the well near that tallow tree over there, the one hit by lightning near its base. The well is now dry. Once, my sister dropped a kitten into the well. I was shocked, but she made me promise to tell no one, she twisted my wrist. I think the kitten crawled out of the water and found a ledge, for I heard its cry from the darkness. My sister was two years older, you see, and our father’s favourite. I still hear the sound of a kitten crying some nights when I cannot sleep. That trick of hers has haunted me for over seventy years.

They say there is a great shortage of girls for our boys to marry, due to the Policy. Many men will never find a partner. So much for the Policy. You can say my son was a lucky one. You might say that. He advertised in some newspaper, and so she came here, from a mining town, East. A different sort, she is. No humility, harsh manners, little grace, except that which is done for show, like when the nurse came to look at my foot in the spring. I was never introduced to her family. I heard they were deeply disappointed with her choice. For my part, I say that like attracts like.

I never feared age. I was foolish enough to imagine wisdom would accrue, and thereby honour would be given, modest as my life was. The honour that only family can bestow. Honour: longer lasting than love and more reliable.

I have made a decision. Tomorrow morning I will walk out through the gate. I will enter the great Shenmi forest that bounds three sides of this village, and I will walk deep into the forest’s heart.

***

Fa woke very early the next morning, barely after dawn. His son and daughter-in-law could be heard lightly snoring as he shuffled quietly past their door. Bad weather had been predicted by the radio the night before, but when Fa stepped outside he found the day to be bright and crispwith no trace of wind. The sky was like pale blue milk. Above the line of trees the far-off mountains were adorned in mist. “Beautiful,” he said.

He had not prepared any food, nor had he taken any water. That would defeat the purpose. He would walk and walk and sit down to rest when the correct time came and the right place was found. By the gate he paused, thinking: ‘Am I really doing the right thing? Am I mistaken in their intentions?’ Then he remembered all the secret looks they gave each other when they thought he was not looking. His sight was not as good as it had been, but he was far from blind. His hand rubbed the smooth wood of the gate, a gate he made himself some forty years before. I was not a bad carpenter, he thought.

He passed by the silent houses. From the forest the birds were already calling. They blended into an odd music that obeyed its own laws of time and rhythm. There was woodsmoke in the air. Fa inhaled. Then he saw a thin line of smoke above the chimney of Hua’s house. She too was an early riser then. Fa had once considered asking Hua to move in with him. That was some years after both their respective partners had died. A decent enough period of time. They might have married, or simply acted as good companions. The boy, still at the village school then, would not hear of it. He played up, threatened to run away, told his father he was betraying the memory of his mother. He would slam doors off their hinges, would even break plates. Fa gave in. Now he bitterly regretted it.

Unsurprisingly, Hua had been very graceful over the matter. She was a person of character. They had discussed the preliminaries after all, over many a bowl of tea, usually in her warm kitchen. She was a good woman. She told Fa that she could not come between him and his son, a son of whom so much was once expected.

Why not knock gently at her door? Explain the situation. The correct words might be found. She might also appreciate the company, and he could still manage most things. He was not looking for a nurse. Was he? They had barely spoken since the idea had cooled. Nothing needed to be said; he felt she had understood. But now things had advanced, and not only their years. They had to stick together, did they not? He had something to offer still. Everyone always has something to offer. You must believe that.

Her face was round, pleasant. She kept the light of her girlhood in her eyes. Conversation can be likelove. And there is satisfaction in knowing someone will call your name in the morning. And when you call theirs there will be an answer. This is compensation.

Fa stood, trembling a little, at the foot of her path. He had not even left the village and his plan had been vanquished. Perhaps he really was a foolish old man, fit only for wherever foolish old men are sent by their well-meaning children. A hazy place of grey corridors, barked commands, indifference, a mad kind of loneliness, and the worst kind of food. Such did he imagine it.

Faint cooking smells came from Hua’s house. Why not invite yourself to breakfast? Perhaps she is yearning, too? Just then, the door opened violently, Fa felt it to be, and a man he had never seen before threw out a jug of dirty-looking water onto the ground. It steamed where it fell.

The man looked at Fa. “What?” he said in a rough voice. The man was perhaps in his fifties, hefty forearms, a blunt face.

“I was wondering how Hua is,” Fa began.

“She is in the hospital.”

“Which hospital? What is wrong?”

“Why do you need to know?” the man responded, narrowing his eyes.

“I am a neighbour. A friend, actually.”

“Never seen you before,” the man said, then turned and shut the door behind him. The steam from the water still rose from the ground where it had been thrown.

Fa took a few steps back. Looked at the house. Through one window, behind a thin curtain, he could see that furniture and boxes had been stacked against one wall.

It was time to go. A dalliance, that was all. An idea long past its freshness. Some once-living thing, dried and unrecognisable. A lost path. Fa hoped that whatever Hua was suffering from it would be swift to release her. Again, a bitterness swelled in him: his son, that complacent runt who did not know one end of a spade from the other. “How did his mother and I create him? Or was he created by something else, by history, or by some distant edict from the men in dark suits? Their version of progress. Always leaping forward they are, and never looking back to where they have leapt from. Deranged frogs. It might all be possible, and possible, too, that I am losing my faculties.”

Fa walked on. He came to the end of the row of small dwellings. The Shenmi forest beckoned. This particular path ended where the trees began. Pines, some oaks, a few varieties he had never learned the names of, or perhaps he had forgotten them—it all began here, giving no sense of its size, its grandeur, seeming almost parochial, a trickster, claiming nothing. The ground began to crunch beneath Fa’s feet. He had, of course, walked many times into the outskirts, looking for mushrooms, herbs, or just to gather his thoughts when times were difficult. As a boy, he searched out birds’ eggs, sometimes climbing high to rob their nests. He saw in his mind a thumb and fingers pressing against a bright blue egg, and the shell giving way, then the yolk and the albumen dripping down the fingers into the bowl of a palm.

This time it was different. This time there was only one direction. Going on was a controlled falling. With a somewhat blank look on his face, Fa slowly fell.

***

I had walked much of the day, deeper and deeper. The light was changing now. It had become as though I were walking through the same patch of forest, over and over. I noticed curious repetitions of shape and colour and spacing. The same grouping of fungi around a fallen bough. Perhaps they were not exact replicas, merely half-echoes. I began to wonder whether I was actually walking on the spot, upon some earthen treadmill. My hat had fallen from my hand some miles back. What use is a hat?

The thirst had come, had then lessened, only to return with a fierceness that frightened me. My limbs ached. Despite the lateness of the season, insects had enjoyed a feast on my exposed skin.

They say the fern is a prehistoric plant. One of the oldest and once one of the most common, it grew almost everywhere. It seems then that I am walking into prehistory.

Will my son and his wife contact the authorities? Or will they assume I have disappeared and hope for that disappearance to be permanent? Another statistic, another deranged old man losing himself among the trees, not even worthy of a photograph in the province newspapers. Perhaps they are giving it a little time to reach the point of no return. It is their lucky day.

I remember when I first saw him. It is difficult to admit, but I had a natural disgust. I wanted to retch. I pretended I was yawning through lack of sleep.  It was a difficult labour, and I sat by her, even though this was most unusual. His mother doted on him, as it is expected. I suspected, especially as he grew and revealed his nature, that he would extract some revenge for being born in this place and time to such simple people. His spirit is greedy and complex.

At last, I recognised the spot, put there as though it were just for me. The impressively large ginkgo tree. I looked up and could not see its crown. It was lost in the weave of other trees. In a triangular patch of purple sky I believe I saw a bright star. Either that or a satellite. Then a wind altered the canopy and the star was hidden.

I could smell a decaying animal nearby. At first the smell is bad, but with time it turns to a sweetness, then to a type of musk, then, gradually, to the remembrance of a scent. Animals will scent me. I suppose I may be torn and scattered. I do not begrudge the forest the gift of my body.

I sat cross-legged beneath the ginkgo tree. One thing I have not lost is flexibility. Early morning exercises, as we learned in school. I never missed a day. Well, except the day she died. On that day I did not move or speak. Some thought me hard-hearted because I did not weep. It was beyond weeping.

The leaves beneath me were a soft cushion. The trunk supported me well, consoled me, in truth. I closed my eyes. I counted my breaths. I asked for release.

***

When I opened my eyes the forest was there. I heard its sounds and smelt it. I tasted it. It tasted green and a little bitter. I felt neither thirst nor hunger. Indeed, I felt astonishingly rested and calm in myself. If I had to sum it up, I would say a few years had been lifted from my shoulders. Perhaps more than a few.

I got to my feet with ease. My knees and hip had not caused me pain as they usually did. Before leaving, I reached out to touch the ancient ginkgo tree. I blessed it in my heart. The bark was warm with the afternoon sun.

A bird called high in the canopy. It was a message of sorts. It told me to walk again. To return. And so I did.

After what seemed a relatively short time, I came to the village. Still I felt no hunger or thirst. My tread was steady and even. Even my eyesight had grown sharper. Some children passed me. A dog scampered around them. The children ignored me, as they often do these days. After all, what do the old know of the modern world? But the dog sniffed the air when it drew close. I thought of touching it, scratching it behind the ears, as it was not a fearsome dog. It whined as I put my hand out. It backed away. Then the children called it, and it followed them.

Eventually, I found Hua’s house. Smoke still curled from the chimney. I could see someone moving inside. Then the sound of a stringed instrument, badly played. 

“Are you there, Hua?” I called this from the gate, expecting no reply. But I did notice that my voice had regained some of its youthful timbre. My walk had done me good. The door opened and the man from before stood in the doorway in his vest. In one hand he held a mug of spirits. I knew this because I could smell it, even from the gate. The man looked about him, a puzzled expression on his sallow unshaven face. 

“Has Hua returned from the hospital? Is she well? I have something to ask her. Is she well?”

The man slowly shook his head, but this did not seem in answer to my question. It was, I am sure, more a response to his own thoughts. He took a gulp from his mug, shuddered, and closed the door.

At last I came to my own house. I stepped over the low wall instead of passing through the gate. Do not ask me why. It simply felt a better thing to do. I strode, light-footed, to the door and entered. Inside it was dark. I backed out of the door and noticed that all the curtains were drawn. That had not seemed apparent at first, or else I had not cared to look.

I found them in the kitchen, at the table. My son and his wife. She no longer appeared pregnant. An unfinished meal lay before each of them. When I stood at the threshold they did not look up. When I stood by the still warm oven, they did not acknowledge me. My son’s face was bloated and tear-stained. Just then, he pushed away his plate and his head fell to the table with a thud. Sobs racked his body. I had never seen such a thing from him. His wife looked on, seemingly unsure of how to comfort him. She, too, was pale and drawn, as though she had not slept for several nights. I looked at them both and, still as they were, and they became a painting, like one of those rural interiors by Li from the 30s. They went out of fashion, but I always appreciated them.

My son raised his head and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. He breathed deeply, then said: “I failed him. I failed myself.”

She lay her hand on his arm. “It’s not true. Not true,” she cooed, as if she were comforting a young child.

By then I had swallowed enough of the joke. I clapped my hands together. “Cheer up,” I told them. “I am back and better than ever. Lots to do in that garden, a few roof tiles to replace, a new coat of paint for the gate and this dreary old kitchen. It is time we spruce the place up.”

They acted as though they had not heard me. Not so much as a glance. So the rudeness, the arrogance, had remained in them. No lessons learned. I clapped my hands again, twice. “Wake up,” I said. “Wake up now.”

My son’s head fell once more to the table, as if a string had been cut. His arms covered his face. He made a sound which could not be distinguished between crying and laughing.

Then, despite the dying light, I scrutinised her face, and although the eyes were moist and puffy, the mouth held the promise of a smile.

 


MARK MAYES currently lives in Wales, where he enjoys writing stories, poems, and songs. 2017 saw the publication of his novel, The Gift Maker. Some of his songs may be found here.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Mayes. All rights reserved.